Reading Down Under

The Blue Feather by Gary Crew

“The Blue Feather” is a teen novel that I would probably categorize as a “coming of age” story: a character is openly described as a youth at the beginning, yet somehow matures through the passage of the novel. And where better to set one of these stories than in the Australian outback? From the start this novel’s strongest force is that of the wild or natural: it opens in a bird of prey reserve and swiftly moves into the bush.

We are introduced to a trio of adventurers who are traversing the bush on the search for the legendary ouaka bird of Esperance, a raptor that could be more than double the size of anything seen before. The team is made up of Simon (a one-eyed youth with the tendency to run away from authority), Mara (a photojournalist) and Muir (a conservationist who was once Mara’s boyfriend), all of whom have different aims for their trek. Mara intends to catalogue the myth of the bird, Muir is certain of the bird’s existence and Simon worked at Muir’s bird sanctuary for a while before he was brought along for no apparent reason.

Let me say first of all, the descriptions of the outback are gloriously detailed. Even for someone like me, who knows nothing of Australia and it’s dangers, gorgeous mental images. As the trek becomes more dangerous and separated from inhabited areas, there is a clear sense of desolation and loneliness that you simply couldn’t find in a book set in England. Australia’s history is imbedded in this part of the world, with many of the sub characters seeming to be in some kind of time warp. By the end of the novel you truly feel as though you are taking this journey with them.

It’s strange that, in relation to this book, I much prefer the adventure to the adventurers. The book is written partly in third person perspective and partly in first. The third person perspective is attached to Simon so that we can still hear his thought processes and the first person perspective comes directly from Mala. This means that, unfortunately, we get no entry into Muir’s mind, which I found a bit disappointing. He is the calmest and most mature of the characters, which I suppose was taken to mean “boring” but I would have liked for him to have been given a voice. Simon spends most of his time talking about how he doesn’t care and doesn’t know why he came and Mala’s portions of the story really began to bother me by the end of the book.

Mala’s perspective is shown through transcriptions of tapes that she is sending to her editor. These are meant to be simple recordings that she is making to keep him updated and yet they do not read naturally as someone talking. They sound far more like diary entries, with Mala mulling over her reactions to everything that happened to her and bringing in her home life in a way that feels awkward and unlike something anyone would say if they were merely taking notes. This was the worst example by far but the whole book is speckled with elements of exposition: characters saying or thinking things that don’t sound natural but the author deigned to be necessary. This makes the middle portion of the novel, where a few of the characters have revelations, somewhat stilted and false sounding.

Overall this book flourishes in it’s environment rather than it’s characters. It has certainly encouraged me to real more novels that are set in the bush, I just hope that they are more rounded than “The Blue Feather”.

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